After our long, challenging train journey from Uzbekistan, we arrived in the city of Volgograd, in the southwest of Russia, I mean it's roughly in that blobular section of the biggest most endless landmass that is old country. That's right, after almost three months, after traveling through Mongolia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, we made our way back to Mother Russia. And we were overjoyed to be back in a place where we sort of knew the language, and where we could reunite with the trappings of modernity, and where I could eat at an actual vegan restaurant. But I didn't realize how important a city Volgograd is, in critical and meaningful ways far beyond its current offerings of comfort for my spoiled behind, and I was and remain in awe of its history. I initially wanted to come here just to see the incredible, enormous statue pictured at left (or above if you're on your phone), but there's so, so much more to Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. We had a lovely few days here, learning more than I ever learned in school about World War II, exploring what the city has to offer today, and finding all the vegan food for me to eat.
It's not an accident that I'm choosing to lead with this picture of a tank on the Volga river. Volgograd needs you to know two things, right off the bat: It was the site of one of the most important battles in history, and the most tragic, and also it is on the Volga river get it that's what its name means (bye Stalin!) So I knew one of these. I'm sorry, universe. If you are like my husband, you are horrified that I didn't know about Volgograd's role in World War II. I mean I knew about the Battle of Stalingrad, in the sense that I knew it was a thing that happened, but I didn't know the details: that it was the largest and bloodiest (almost two million casualties) battle in the history of warfare. I didn't know how essential it was to the war, how crucial it was to what came next. And this is because I was educated in American public school, where you learn that America is the best and without us everyone in Europe would be speaking German. And as much as we want to believe that the Americans saved WW2, it really was the Russians who won it and lost the most. They sacrificed so much, so many of their people and so much of their world, and this is the truth in Volgograd.
A part of a preserved/destroyed building from the war, called Pavlov's House. It was any old apartment building, but Soviet soldiers stayed inside for a 60 day siege, holding it against the German forces. The house was important to hold for its position to a vital bank of the Volga. Germans attacked several times every day. For 60 days! Can you even imagine what this was like? War is AWFUL. It's outside the Panorama Museum (an easier reference than the State Historical and Memorial Preserve the Battle of Stalingrad
In 1942, Stalin et al. assumed that the Nazis would focus their efforts on Moscow but then they surprised everyone (those tricky Nazis) by attacking the south of the Soviet Union. The Battle of Stalingrad lasted more than five months, as the Soviet Union fought the Nazis for control of the city. Armies fought in the streets, at extremely close range, facing the challenge of urban warfare. A main objective was to destroy the city's industrial capacity, but they pretty much just destroyed the city full stop. Well, except for the Stalingrad Tractor company, which continued making tanks until the Germans actually physically entered the factory. Air bombings added to the onslaught, killing many civilians and nearly leveling the entire city. Stalin refused to evacuate the civilians (did anyone ask him why) (well someone said he wanted the civilians to stay so that people would fight harder to protect them, which is super f-ed up) so 400,000 regular joes (/ivans) were trapped in the city during the offensive. Some were taken to Germany as slave workers, some fled, a few ended up being evacuated, but many were killed, and only 10,000-60,000 were left out of that original 400K after the battle ended in February 1943. All civilians in the city during the battle were put to work building fortifications and whatever else they could contribute. And the Soviets famously ordered anyone strong enough to hold a rifle to fight. In fact, the initial defense of the city fell to a group of young female volunteers making up the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment. When they found out they had been fighting a group of girls, the Nazis were pisssssed! They hate girls!
The Flour Mill in Stalingrad, preserved in its destruction as a monument to the battle. I love that there is now a statue of children dancing in front of it. It's called the Barmaley fountain, informally, and features six children dancing around a CROCODILE. There are two in the city (neither the original), called Barmaley because of the old fairytale poem about a pirate villain and crocodiles that bite people? I think it's saying to be cautious?
So you can see it was terrible. It's one thing when war is waged in fields like in movies making it seem all heroic. It's completely different in a city, even more chaotic and hideous than usual. Fighting filled every street, every building and every house. Even the sewers were filled with fighting. And remember how many civilians were here. No wonder old Russian ladies are stereotyped as being tough as nails. They were! And while it's true that the Russians deserve a lot of credit for their helping to win WWII and all they sacrificed, Stalin was, well, Stalin, and there was a great deal of 'trimming the ranks' - executing any Red Army soldiers who defected or fell out of line - like, even literally, falling out of formation. Scary times. Let's not having another world war guys.
To learn all about this battle and what it meant for the war, your first order of business in Volgs is to go to the Museum Panorama about the Battle of Stalingrad - official name, I am finding, the State Historical and Memorial Preserve the Battle of Stalingrad. I feel like some punctuation would be good there but here we are. The museum was wonderful, sad but wonderful. The worst part about it was that they checked my water bottle EYE ROLL. It's worth it to do the audio tour, not because the audio is that great but because the signage is lacking. It was actually kind of hard to find the numbers on the exhibits, but it became like a scavenger hunt! Fun! Note that the last audioguide clues are all the way at the top of the museum, up stairs, and not marked with like 'exhibit continues up here' signs or anything. I had no idea about it but husband did, luckily, so we made our way up and were rewarded with these gorgeous murals depicting the battle. That's why it's called the panorama museum - this last incredible part was the panorama.
I also really enjoyed this sculpture of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, the three amigos! The three musketeers! The three...tenors.
My favorite part, of course, was the amazing anti-Nazi posters that were all over the museum and seemingly all over Russia (they REALS hate Nazis, good job Ruskies) that we all need to print out and post all over America. And England. And everywhere apparently! What a time!
THIS ONE BELOW OH MY GOD IT TRANSLATES AS 'PARTISANS: RETALIATE WITHOUT MERCY' WHAAAAAAAT.
Because the war defines so much of the city, there are memorials everywhere. I don't know all the details for them, but they all looked appropriately serious.
There are also lots of statues around the city not directly tied to the war. As I mentioned above in the caption for the Flour Mill picture, they love seeing children dance around a crocodile - the so-called Barmaley fountain is also found in front of the train station, which was a very fun first sight for us when we disembarked! Crocodiles and children, the best dancing pair since Fred and Ginger. And of course, because we were in a town east of Poland, we found the requisite Lenin statue.
But like I said in the beginning, we had originally come for one purpose - to see the gigantic The Motherland Calls statue. We had to see the big fucking thing! I knew it was big and I knew it was a fucking thing, but when we spotted it from our train window, we realized oh, it's really forking big.
The Motherland Calls is a statue commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad (what else would it be for!). It was designed by two men, named Yevgeny Vuchetich and Nikolai Nikitin (Tommy Thomas), which I like because they designed the largest statue of a woman in the world which means maybe they are two of the few men who aren't scared of women. It was once the largest statue in the world period (haha) (get it) (it's funny because women get periods) but now it's just the largest statute in Europe (*just*) which is still pretty much the world that matters, can't count Dubai and stuff because all they do with their time is literally try to build the tallest things. Regardless of how its size measures up to the rest of the world's big ass statues, TMC is BY FAR the most badass statue ever and I'm obsessed with it. SO BAD ASS. (By the way, if you haven't watched this Finnish comedian's take on the word ass yet, you should. He points out the very interesting fact that when you add 'ass' after a word like 'stupid', it is a bad thing, but when you add it after 'bad' like I just did, it makes it a great thing. whaaaat.)
The statue was modeled after a real person, named Valetina Izotova, which is SO cool. I hope she was cool.
There are 200 steps leading up the hill to the monument itself, representing each day of the horrific Battle. They are lined with walls featuring pretty remarkable reliefs.
On the hill beneath the statue are lots of gravestones for various military personnel, and next to it is a hall with the Eternal Flame, another thing every Russian town has in addition to the bust of Lenin. The walls are covered with the lists of names of those who were lost in the war, I assume. When we arrived, they were having a moment of silence and it was quite moving. Many armed soldiers were guarding the flame, more than usual because this was a really important place, an entire hall of a war memorial, but how much must it suck to get assigned to this kind of position, just standing there at attention all day and watching all the doofy tourists take selfies.
The Volgs had already won me over before we got to the Badass Mother, but considering this is all I originally (thought I) wanted to see, I was not disappointed. We need more gigantic statues of women. Maybe that's what can take the place of all the confederate ones.
Volgograd had incredible history and sights and some pretty good food too! I was so eager to get to the all vegan restaurant and shop Mirnaya Eda (Peaceful Meal), and while it was a little tricky to find, it was worth it. Even if the food sucked it would have been worth it - my first all vegan place in so long! - but luckily it did not suck.
I was a little overwhelmed with all the choice, when I had to read everything in Russian and then by the time I deciphered one and moved on to the next I forgot what came before so I couldn't compare and contrast and it was very stressful! I chose a salad and a wrap, and they were both good but a little weird! The salad was covered in chia goop, a little strange, no? It was herby chia goop like a thick dressing but chia goop nonetheless. I love chia seeds and pudding but it was weird as a salad dressing. I was still psyched for veggies though! Likewise, the wrap was a little of because it was full of all hot cooked soupy veggies, which is not the usual either. But still good and yay veggies.
The best part of Mirnaya Eda is that it's an entirely vegan shoppe too! They have tons of fun sounding products, from milks and granolas to cheeses and faux meats. They have a big case of desserts too. I would have bought stuff but I didn't want to be carrying stuff until home, and I didn't need emergency supplies any longer now that we were back in European cities.
Honestly my favorite food in Volgograd was this cafeteria-style place in a very cool, cosmopolitan area. There's a bunch of dishes behind a glass case and you just point to which things you want. Because there's so much choice, there's bound to be a lot of vegan-friendly options. And it's so super cheap. We were eager to try a lot of dishes too, so these types of places are the best for that. We chose a nice one called Chaste Est, which we entered even though the guy pictured outside on the window looked just like the devil incarnate Paul Ryan. Yeesh.
To celebrate getting through central Asia and all these insane train journeys, we stayed at the Hotel Volgograd, which was super lovely. It's a great location for walking everywhere and for catching the bus to the Motherland Calls monument. It was built in 1890 and used for a variety of historic purposes. And the room was beautiful, clean, with a comfortable bed. The staff was great too. I called down when we checked in for an extra robe (fluffy white terrycloth hotel robes are my favorite) but they had no idea what I was saying so soon a maid arrived with an extra of every single bathroom amenity just to cover all the bases - shower towel, handtowel, bathmat, toothbrush, combs, soap, shampoos, slippers, and a bathrobe. It was really funny.
So Volgograd was a great stop and I'm so glad we fit a few days into our schedule. It has such important history that could have destroyed it forever but it has come a long way to be a pleasant, modern city with great sight and a great vibe.